Once More, with Feeling

Milton Babbitt has died, at the ripe age of 94. I had never paid much attention to his music; what I knew about it (Babbitt advocated “total serialism”) failed to pique my interest. But today people on Facebook were posting links, so I listened to a couple of his pieces.

One hesitates to speak ill of the recently departed. I’m sure Babbitt was a very bright guy, and passionately dedicated to his art. But I can’t help feeling that he utterly failed to understand the nature of music. He was swept up in an academic, intellectual whirlwind that attempted, with considerable success, to divorce the production and content of music from any sort of human feeling. You can listen to his music, but you won’t get anything out of it, because there’s nothing to be gotten out of it.

Music exists in a sort of dynamic tension or interplay between repetition and change. Repetition leads to predictability: As we listen, we will inevitably try to anticipate what will happen next, based on what has just happened. But the composer may surprise us by doing something we don’t expect. The moment of change is the moment in which something unexpected occurs.

Now, different listeners have different levels of familiarity with different styles, so the question of what is predictable or unpredictable will vary from one listener to another, and for a given listener from one style to another. Some people find “modern” jazz (that is, anything recorded since about 1945) chaotic and confusing. There’s too much change, not enough predictability. This reaction is partly due to the fact that there is indeed quite a lot of change in this style, and partly due to lack of familiarity with the style. A listener who dislikes jazz fails to perceive the predictable elements that are in fact present. Other listeners, myself included, are quite comfortable listening to music in that style.

Conversely, some people find the music of Kenny G and Yanni very pleasant. They find its relatively high level of predictability soothing, and enjoy the relatively restricted range of change that a given piece undergoes. Other listeners, myself included, find this sort of music very boring, because it’s too predictable. There’s not enough change. (On the other hand, I like Kraftwerk and the Residents a great deal, and their music is quite repetitive. The changes are subtle, but deployed in effective ways.)

The trouble with the music of Milton Babbitt is that it’s all change. Nothing repeats, except the fact that nothing repeats. The lack of repetition is a constant, and constant, unrelenting change soon becomes as boring as no change. The unpredictable becomes, oddly enough, all too predictable.

Babbitt’s electronic work reminds me a bit of some of the “outside” moments in Frank Zappa. But Zappa understood the dynamic between predictability and change. He would toss in 30 seconds of complete avant-garde madness and then segue, without pause, into a satirical doo-wop ballad in 4/4 time with triplets and a rock guitar solo. The level of unpredictability in Zappa is itself unpredictable, and that’s a significant part of what makes his music fun to listen to.

Ultimately, most listeners don’t care about the intellectual underpinnings of music. They may know more (and love jazz) or they may know less (and love Yanni), but in either case they’re reacting more on the basis of emotion than on the basis of pure intellect. Emotion arises, for the listener, in the interplay of repetition and change. Babbitt’s music entirely fails to address the listener’s emotions, and that’s why.

I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have cared. He wasn’t interested in how you felt when you listened to his music. If you didn’t grasp what he was doing, that was your problem. His 1958 essay, “The Composer as Specialist” (retitled “Who Cares if You Listen?” by the editors of High Fidelity, which published the piece), is available online. It’s a masterpiece of obfuscation and misunderstanding. I could analyze its failings point by point, but I’d rather go play some music.

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One Response to Once More, with Feeling

  1. Mikael says:

    Hey Jim,

    I hope all is well your way. My name is Mikael and I’m an Ethiopian residing in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
    I just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog. I subscribed to your feed in Google reader too.

    I briefly studied music production up to last year in New Jersey. That is, without basic knowledge of music theory.

    It’s refreshingly peculiar you had to mention Kenny G and Yanni in your piece, because a good number of Addis Ababaens are familiar with and enjoy their works. I don’t.

    Which brings me to my point. In a country as old as Ethiopia(2000+ years old), the notion of change itself is paradoxical. More than 80% of the population(80+ million), lives in the less than ideal country side. Which leaves less than 10% to reside in Addis Ababa. The literacy rate is less than satisfactory both in the capital and country side.

    Focusing more on the capital, the highest forms of music are considered to be orthodox church music, classical music and jazz(especially Ethiojazz:
    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Mulatu_Astatke).

    Popular Addis Ababaen music is for the most part produced on decade old Yamaha workstations that sound like they only have 6 to 7 presets in their soundbanks.
    I have not yet heard of a professional mastering studio in town.
    No experimental music scene, no electronic music scene. Lack of access to musical instruments is the norm(they’re also quite expensive).

    Again, musical knowledge amongst professional musicians here falls back to western practices and techniques. And now that technology is gaining ground into the youth’s lives, popular western musical hegemony has reached its zenith.

    Although a relative balance is required between predictability and change, in music, I feel like in this case, the envelope to be pushed, so to speak, is replete with musical information(Ethiopia’s musical emotions soundscape is a diverse one). Leaving today’s musicians of Addis Ababa with brilliant, intellectually stimulating musical decisions to make.
    But it’s not happening at a healthy rate. One just hears more of the same.

    Anyways, I hope my rant finds you well.

    All best.
    M.

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